Elevation gain: 240 ft.
Trailhead: Historic Rugby
Participants of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge who have sweated out hikes to Hurricane Ridge, Angel Falls Overlook and along the Leatherwood Loop Trail the past several weeks are no doubt ready for a bit of a break.
For those hikers, the leisurely stroll to Rugby’s Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole will provide a welcome respite. Not only is the 2.1-mile loop trail a breeze compared to the last few trails, but the Clear Fork River and White Oak Creek offer ample opportunity to take off your shoes and wade into the water — or to cool off completely by diving into the swimming holes that are located along either stream.
At just over two miles in length, the Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole Trail is one of the shortest of the hiking challenge. It isn’t as easy as the hike to Northrup Falls at Colditz Cove or the hike at Pogue Creek Canyon, but it’s much easier than the climb to Angel Falls Overlook or Needle’s Eye. Its 240 ft. of elevation change earns it a “moderate” difficulty rating, but even that little bit of elevation change is child’s play when compared to the serious climbs at Honey Creek or along the John Muir Trail downstream from Leatherwood.
For what the hike to Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole lacks in terms of length or challenge, it makes up for in sheer scenic beauty. The Clear Fork is an exceptionally beautiful stream, and it’s easy to see what attracted the colonists of Rugby to this place well over 100 years ago.
Throw in the trail’s historical connotations, and the Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole is a trip you don’t want to miss out on. Be sure to stop by the visitor center in the village before you head out to the trailhead at Laurel Dale Cemetery, where you can pick up a free illustrated trail guide. The trail has numbered sign posts that correspond with the booklet to describe points of interest — such as Witch’s Cave, an old grist mill site, and the two watering holes along the route.
From the cemetery, the hiking trail quickly descends into the gorge, which is blanketed with a beautiful forest of hemlock, rhododendron and big-leaf magnolia, parallels the river for a mile, then makes a steep climb back to the top of the plateau and follows an old road bed back to Laurel Dale Cemetery near Rugby.
The Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole is less than a half-mile into the hike. There, you’re likely to see a few people enjoying the clear, clean-flowing waters of the small river — men and women alike.
But if it were the 1880s, when Rugby was an idealistic colony for the younger sons of English gentry, the women would’ve likely been doing their swimming a little further downstream. That’s because the Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole was exactly what its name implies: a place where the young men of the village went to bathe. When the ladies went for a dip, they walked a separate trail to a separate hole of water, which was located upstream from the gentlemen’s swimming hole.
When the Rugby settlement began in 1880, it didn’t take the young men of the village long to find the hole of water in the nearby river. As related by Russ Manning in his book, “100 Trails of the Big South Fork,” Rugby founder Thomas Hughes — the author who is best known for “Tom Brown’s School Days” — visited the colony that same year and was awakened by the sound of men gathering to make the trek to the river.
“They had heard of a pool 10 ft. deep,” Hughes wrote. “And what a delicious place it is, surrounded by great rocks, lying in a copse of rhododendron, azaleas and magnolias.”
Nearly as quickly, the need for separate bathing holes was realized. Former Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area park ranger Howard Duncan relates that story in his book, “Hiking the Big South Fork.” The Rugby newspaper noted in 1881 that some of the men of the colony refused to swim in British fashion, instead preferring to bathe “à la française” — which is to say, nude.
“There is to be a ladies’ bathing place on the Clear Fork,” the newspaper wrote. “It will be a great improvement for when bathing is as good as it is here, it seems horribly selfish for the male animal to engross it all.”
Getting There: Take U.S. Hwy. 27 south to Elgin, then take S.R. 52 west to Rugby. After turning into the old highway that leads through the village, look for the sign that points the way to Laurel Dale Cemetery. Drive to the road’s end. Hike the trail in a clockwise direction, and be sure to stop by the visitor center at Rugby for a free trail guide.
Be Careful For: A steep ascent. After prolonged periods of heavy rainfall, Clear Fork may climb out of banks and cover the trail in places.
Look For: A short distance into the hike, look for the “Witch’s Cave” — a rock shelter that was so-named by the colonists of Rugby in the late 1880s. It is marked by sign post No. 7.
Make It Better: Take along your swimming gear for a dip at the Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole! Be sure to explore Historic Rugby, perhaps having lunch at the Harrow Road Cafe, before you leave the village.
Remember To: Use the #20WeekHikingChallenge hashtag in your photos on social media, or email photos to firstname.lastname@example.org, along with the names of all members of your hiking party, in order to log your miles.
Don’t Forget: Obey the Leave No Trace ethic by “taking only memories, leaving only footprints.” If you pack it in, pack it out!